Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition"Linux Mint is a popular desktop distribution which features two main branches. The first branch is based on Ubuntu long-term support (LTS) releases and is available in three editions: Cinnamon, MATE, and Xfce. The second branch uses Debian Stable releases as its foundation and is available in one edition: Cinnamon.
The project's latest release is Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition", also sometimes written LMDE 4. Much of the work which has gone into LMDE 4 focuses on bringing the Debian branch of Linux Mint up to date with the Ubuntu branch, which seems to get the bulk of the developers' focus. The latest improvements include better VirtualBox support, access to the System Reports tool, and APT's recommended packages being enabled by default:
This new version of LMDE contains many improvements. Here are some of the main ones: automated partitioning with support for LVM and full-disk encryption; home directory encryption; support for automated installation of NVIDIA drivers; NVMe support; Secure Boot support; Btrfs sub-modules support; revamped installer; automatic installation of microcode packages; automatic resolution bump for the live session to a minimum of 1024×768 in VirtualBox; Linux Mint 19.3 improvements (HDT, boot-repair, system reports, language settings, HiDPI and artwork improvements, new boot menus, Celluloid, Gnote, Drawing, Cinnamon 4.4, XApp status icons); APT recommends enabled by default; removed deb-multimedia repository and packages; Debian 10 'Buster' package base with backports repository.
LMDE 4 is available for both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x86_64) machines. I downloaded the 64-bit build which is 1.9GB in size. Booting from the live media brings up a boot menu which offers to start the live session normally, launch the live desktop in compatibility mode, or boot with NVIDIA video drivers enabled. I stuck with the default normal mode.
The live media then brings up the Cinnamon desktop which places a panel along the bottom edge of the display. This panel is home to the application menu, task switcher, and the system tray. The wallpaper is mostly black with the Linux Mint logo in the centre. Icons on the desktop launch the file manager and system installer.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- The application menu (full image size: 138kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Mint uses a custom installer which did not fit on my desktop when running the distribution in a VirtualBox environment. The navigation buttons at the bottom of the window were hidden behind the desktop panel. The installer window cannot be made smaller. Moving the Cinnamon panel to the side of the screen worked around this issue. The hidden button problem did not occur when running Mint on my physical laptop computer.
The installer runs us through the usual steps of selecting our preferred language, our time zone, and keyboard layout. We are then asked to make up a username and password. Optionally we can choose to encrypt our home directory. As a bonus, I found my home directory was set up with permissions so that only my own user could access it. User accounts I added later were not locked down and their home directories were accessible.
We are then asked if the installer should wipe and take over the hard drive or have us manually partition the disk. The manual option displays a list of available partitions we can take over. We can then assign filesystems and mount points to the listed partitions. If we want to create or destroy partitions we can click a button to launch the GParted partition editor. I opted to set up Mint on a Btrfs volume. We can then optionally choose to install a boot loader and pick its location. The installer goes to work copying files and then offers to restart the computer.
I ran into a few problems with the installer. During two of my install attempts the installer aborted, reporting the file /target/tmp/passwd could not be found. The other three times I ran through the installer no such error occurred though I used the same settings every time.
During one install attempt I tried to repartition the disk using GParted. I was informed GParted could not work on the device as it (/dev/sda) was busy and could not be altered. It turned out a partition on the drive had been mounted during the live session, but even with the device unmounted and the installer restarted I still ran into the same error and could not proceed. Rebooting the computer and starting the install process over worked around the issue.
LMDE boots to a graphical login screen. From here we can sign into the Cinnamon desktop. There is a second session option for signing into Cinnamon with software rendering enabled. This may be useful for testing performance in situations where we do not have access to good video hardware or suitable video driver support.
Once we sign into the desktop a welcome window appears. The welcome window contains five screens. The first simply offers a welcoming message. Three others provide links to community resources (such as the support forum and IRC channel), links to ways people can contribute to the distribution, and links to documentation. The most interesting screen is titled First Steps and it lists tasks that should be performed early on. These suggestions, such as taking a snapshot of the operating system using Timeshift, enabling the firewall, and checking for package updates, are all accompanied by a button to launch the appropriate tool. I tried a few of these and the tools all launched and worked as expected.
I was a bit disappointed to discover that LMDE's default filesystem layout when installed on Btrfs does not allow Timeshift to take snapshots of the operating system. This is a feature which works well on the Ubuntu-based flavour of Linux Mint and I had hoped to use it on LMDE too.
Once the welcome window is dismissed I noticed there is an icon in the system tray which lets us know when software updates become available. The icon is blue when updates are available and green when the operating system is up to date. Clicking the icon opens the update manager. Mint's update manager has been streamlined in recent years. By default it no longer ranks the safety of new updates or filters them. Instead it marks which updates are security fixes and which ones are regular fixes or updates. Now that Mint supplies Timeshift, the update manager no longer needs to help us protect against breaking the system as, in theory, it is easier to restore a from a snapshot following a broken upgrade.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- The update manager (full image size: 113kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Another icon in the system tray looks like a triangular yield sign and clicking it opens the System Reports tool. This application can show system information (useful for trouble-shooting problems) and potential issues. For example, I was warned I might be missing some language packs and media codecs. In my case, the suspected problems could be fixed by pressing a supplied button under the listed issue to download the missing components. I really like the idea of the System Reports tool as it provides a proactive approach to warning users about common issues and, just as importantly, provides one-click solutions.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- The System Reports tool (full image size: 83kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
When I first started using LMDE I was running it in a VirtualBox environment. When run in the virtual machine LMDE ran without any crashes or serious problems and I could resize the Mint desktop by resizing the VirtualBox window. The process was nicely integrated and seamless. However, Cinnamon ran slowly in VirtualBox and there was always a frustrating amount of lag when clicking on menus or moving windows.
Cinnamon performed much better when run on my laptop. The desktop was responsive even on my laptop's modest hardware. All of the computer's hardware was properly detected and used, allowing me to connect to the local wireless network, play videos, and get my work done. By default Mint used "natural" scrolling on my laptop's touchpad which I do not like. This feature can be toggled in the settings panel.
When signed into Cinnamon, Mint used about 610MB of memory and a fresh installation consumed 6.9GB of disk space. These statistics makes LMDE a little heavier than the average distribution. It also means LMDE is heavier, both on disk and in memory, than Linux Mint's most recent Ubuntu-based MATE edition which I tested about two years ago.
Mint ships with a tidy application menu with just a handful of programs in each of its categories. We are given the Firefox browser, Thunderbird for handling e-mail, the Transmission bittorrent client, and the HexChat IRC client. The distribution provides LibreOffice, a calendar application, and an image viewer. The Celluloid video player (a front-end to MPV) and the Rhythmbox audio player are featured. There are also some great little utilities such as a text editor, archive manager, and a backup tool. The backup application can both archive our data files and save a list of programs we have installed through the software manager to make it easier to re-create our installation on another computer.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- Using the backup utility and Timeshift (full image size: 123kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
LMDE ships with Java installed, offers a copy of the GNU Compiler Collection, and uses systemd for its init software. In the background we find version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
I feel the Cinnamon settings panel is worth mentioning. While we can access specific configuration modules through the application menu, the settings panel places all of our configuration tools in one place. The panel features the usual tools for changing the look and feel of the desktop, adjusting the keyboard layout, and fine-tuning mouse behaviour. We can also configure the firewall, get system information, and manage user accounts.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- The Cinnamon settings panel (full image size: 146kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The settings panel is well organized and its modules are clearly labelled. I feel the Cinnamon settings are noteworthy in that they were pleasantly boring and predictable. They generally just worked the way I expected without any surprises and I like when that happens.
Mint provides a few tools for managing software packages. The first is the Software Centre (also known as mintInstall) which begins by presenting us with a grouping of popular applications near the top of the window. The bottom half of the main screen shows categories of software we can browse. Clicking on an application brings up a full page description and screenshot of the selected software. From the description page, software can be installed or removed with a single click.
Linux Mint 4 "Debian Edition" -- Exploring Software Centre (full image size: 176kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
One thing I found odd while using Software Centre was that, as far as I could tell, it was sometimes possible to install programs which had already been downloaded. For instance, the GNU Image Manipulation Program was installed prior to me opening the centre. I could run GIMP from the command line or application menu. I'd also installed a Flatpak version for testing purposes. However, I could then install the same program again through Software Centre.
Speaking of Flatpak, the Flatpak framework is installed by default. The popular Flathub repository is enabled too, making it easy to install most popular Flatpak packages. Support for Snap packages is not installed out of the box, but Snap can be installed through the package manager, giving us access to a wider range of portable software.
The Synaptic package manager is also available to help us work with low-level packages and available repositories. Synaptic, while not as pretty as mintInstall, works well and quickly.
Most of the time I was using Linux Mint's latest Debian Edition, I enjoyed it. The desktop has a nice layout, there are enough applications to make many people happy without being overwhelming, and the Software Centre is straight forward to use. I especially like the Cinnamon settings panel which provides a lot of flexibility without feeling cluttered.
The above are, I feel, common traits when talking about Linux Mint and will probably not surprise anyone. The feature which stood out this time around was the System Reports utility which does a great job of presenting users with potential (or common) issues and offering one-click solutions. I believe this is an excellent and very convenient way to help users, especially those who might be new and unfamiliar with how to manage features like media codecs.
There were some rough edges while running LMDE. I repeatedly ran into problems with the installer. The missing file and issues with GParted got my trial off on the wrong foot. I was also disappointed to find that while the Ubuntu-based branch of Mint properly sets up Btrfs volumes so they may be snapshotted, the Debian-based branch does not. This means LMDE ships with the powerful Timeshift snapshot utility, but its key features cannot be used with the default filesystem layout.
I have mixed feelings about LMDE being available in just the one edition (Cinnamon). For most people Cinnamon probably makes sense. It is the distribution's flagship desktop, it's pretty flexible and easy to use. Linux newcomers tend to get along well with Cinnamon, in my experience. However, Cinnamon is heavier than either MATE or Xfce (Mint's other supported desktops on its Ubuntu base) and the desktop requires 3-D hardware and driver support to function properly. This means some people running old or poorly supported hardware will have a sub-par experience and running LMDE in a virtual machine is not pleasant.
All in all, I think LMDE is a good desktop distribution and certainly above average in terms of features, friendliness, desktop settings, and package management. I don't think it is quite as polished and problem-free as I found Mint's most recent Ubuntu-based version to be though. I'd still recommend most people use the Ubuntu-based version unless there is a specific need a user has that is better fulfilled by the Debian base.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast